- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Obamacare sign-ups on the federal HealthCare.gov website are running 2 million ahead of last year’s pace, with 8.2 million so far, the administration announced Tuesday, saying demand has surged as customers rush to have coverage in place before the new year.

Nearly half of the customers signed up from Dec. 13-19 as they raced a Dec. 15 deadline for having a plan ready by Jan. 1. The demand was so high that the Obama administration extended the deadline by two days.

“We have never seen this level of activity at the call center or at HealthCare.gov before,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said during a conference call Tuesday with groups that are helping customers enroll.

She said the figures show Obamacare exchanges provide coverage “that people want, like and need.”

The numbers cover the 38 states that rely on the federal exchange website. Final figures for states that run their own exchanges are still to come and will boost the enrollment totals even more.

About 2.4 million of the enrollees are new to the federal exchange. Most of the rest held plans in 2015 and were automatically re-enrolled for 2016 after they failed to pick plans themselves.

The administration has set a modest goal of 10 million paying customers by the end of the 2016 plan year.

It’s on track to easily meet that goal early next year, although enrollment can rise and fall throughout the year as customers drop out because of nonpayment or other reasons, and others enroll because they have married or have had other life events that qualify them for a special enrollment period.

Florida leads the way on HealthCare.gov with about 1.5 million enrollments so far, followed by Texas at slightly more than 1 million, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sign-ups are up compared with last year, when only 6.4 million customers had enrolled on HealthCare.gov as of Dec. 19.

HHS said the population is getting younger. About 2.1 million of the 6 million enrollees announced by Mr. Obama were younger than 35, compared with 1.1 million at this time last year, although the agency was unable to say how many of those were ages 18 to 34.

“It means a younger risk pool, which contributes to a stronger, more stable insurance market,” Ms. Burwell said.

Insurers no longer can deny customers with pre-existing medical conditions, so they must raise premiums if younger, healthier people have not enrolled to minimize risk.

Customers in some parts of the country are reporting “sticker shock” over year-to-year premium increases on the exchanges, and the nation’s largest insurer, UnitedHealth Group, recently said it is losing money from sicker-than-expected customers based on the exchanges and may pull out by 2017.

The administration is gradually prodding more healthy holdouts into the marketplace by highlighting the penalty for not having coverage. The penalty is set to more than double next year, from $325 or 2 percent of qualified income — whichever is higher — to $695 or 2.5 percent of income.

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